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The Mystery of Yamashita’s Gold

Throughout history there have long been tales of lost or buried treasure. Such stories draw people in, the idea of these vast riches just lying out there for the taking irresistible. Indeed, there are people who have dedicated their whole lives to finding such fabled treasures, often at great cost and personal risk, and these lost hauls of loot have accrued many legends and myths. One such lost treasure hails from the battlefields of Word War II, and represents an insane amount of money for any who finds it, that is if it even exists at all.

During World War II, as fighting was raging across the planet in one of the most intense, bloodiest, and most violent periods of human history, the Japanese forces went on a rampage of looting on a massive scale across Southeast Asia. The Japanese had long occupied the region, and used it as a chance to steal large amounts of gold, loot, and various other valuables during their occupation, mainly from Taiwan, China, Korea and the Philippines, with the idea that this would fund the war effort. Yet, the days of fighting seemed to be coming to an end for the Imperial Japanese forces, the end of the war looming as their defeat became inevitable. Even as Japan finally signed a surrender in 1945, there were some who stood fast in their mission regardless, and one of these was General Tomoyuki Yamashita.

Also known as “The Tiger of Malaya,” Yamashita was then the commander of the Philippines, known as a ruthless monster who kept the people under an iron grip of strife and terror, and he absolutely refused to bow down to the Allied forces. Even when the surrender was official, he and his men continued to fight on for several weeks after, and it was during this time that it is said that he went about desperately hiding the spoils of war they had pillaged from all over. The idea had originally been to ship it back to the mainland, but the heavy Allied presence made this impossible, and so Yamashita went about having the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold bullion, jewels, and other treasure buried in numerous booby trapped caves hidden amongst the thick, mosquito infested jungles of the Philippines in an operation code named “Golden Lily.” In order to maintain secrecy, it is rumored that those who knew the location of the loot were then killed to keep the secret safe, and it is all very ominous indeed. Yamashita would later be captured, tried for war crimes, and executed in 1946, but never did say where the treasure was buried, taking the secret to the grave.

Tomoyuki Yamashita

What has come to now be known as “Yamashita’s Gold” has gone on to become almost legendary, spawning numerous attempts to find it, as well as many conspiracy theories. Many of the more conspiratorial ideas of the fate of this fabled treasure have been promoted by authors Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, who have written two books on the subject, The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan’s Imperial Family (2000) and Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold (2003). One of the main theories is that much of the loot was later recovered by agents of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which is the precursor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency, working in league with Emperor Hirohito. The money would later be divvied up and used to fund American covert operation around the globe with what is called “the M-Fund,” and according to this account Gen. MacArthur and then U.S. President Harry S. Truman conspired to keep the finding of the treasure off the books, explaining why the government has refused to declassify any relevant documents pertaining to it all.

Yamashita’s treasure would also make waves in 1988, when it would become a point of contention between Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos and treasure hunter Rogelio Roxas, who claimed that the Philippine government had confiscated a part of the treasure that he had rightfully found. According to Roxas, he had used sources including the son of a former member of the Japanese army and Yamashita’s interpreter during World War II to map out and track down a golden buddha within an underground chamber in Baguio City, which had been razed to the ground during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. He claimed to have found the 3-foot-high statue, as well as a chest stuffed with gold that was too heavy to carry out, all hidden amongst dead Japanese WWII era soldiers and samurai swords. Roxas marked the chamber in order to come back later to retrieve the haul, but he claims that when Ferdinand Marcos learned of the discovery, he had Roxas arrested, beaten, and imprisoned, taking the treasure for himself. Indeed, In 1992, Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos claimed that a good deal of her husband’s wealth came from secretly reclaimed gold from Yamashita’s treasure. In 1998, the courts found that there was enough evidence that Roxas’ finding had been stolen from him, and in 2005 he was awarded $13 million in damages.

Although the court documents ruled that Roxas had indeed found a treasure, it is still not known if this was actually the legendary Yamashita’s treasure, and its very existence is still debated. Despite the evidence presented by the likes of Roxas and the Seagraves that the Yamashita Gold really does exist, some skeptics are doubtful and liken it to a myth. One of the main reasons for thinking so is that there just doesn’t seem to be any irrefutable evidence that anyone has ever found a dime of it all, despite nearly constant treasure hunts to seek it out. Philippines National Historical Institute chairman and historian Ambeth Ocampo has said of this:

For the past 50 years, many people, both Filipinos and foreigners, have spent their time, money and energy in search of Yamashita’s elusive treasure. What makes me wonder is that for the past 50 years, despite all the treasure hunters, their maps, oral testimony and sophisticated metal detectors, nobody has found a thing.

Despite these naysayers, the search continues on, often at great cost and danger to those who would find it. These treasure hunters have also caused quite a bit of consternation among locals in the places where they look, as these activities can threaten other archeological sites, and in some cases the excavations threaten to cause potentially deadly landslides. Whether Yamashita’s gold really exists out in the wilds of the Philippines, or whether it ever even existed in any form at all or not, people will likely keep searching for it for sometime to come, and it remains wreathed in mystery.